Molly: The Tradition

Pig Dyke and The Molly Tradition

Molly: the tradition

“Living where we did and how we did, we used to make the most of anything a bit out o’ the ordinary, and we looked for’ard from one special day to the next. Looking back on it now, I’m surprised to see how many high days and holidays there were during the year that we kept, and we certainly made the most of any that children could take part in at all. ...

The Molly Dancers ’ould come round the fen from Ramsey and Walton all dressed up. One would have a fiddle and another a dulcimer or perhaps a concertina and play while the rest danced. This were really special for Christmas Eve, but o’course the dancers cou’n’t be everywhere at once on one day, so they used to go about on any other special day to make up for it. They’d go from pub to pub, and when they’d finished there, they’d go to any houses or cottages where they stood a chance o>’ getting anything. If we ha’n’t got any money to give’em, at least they never went away without getting a hot drink.”

These are the words of her mother, Kate Edwards (nee Papworth), retold by Sybil Marshall. Her mother’s memory is of the 1890’s and Sybil is retelling it in her book ‘Fenland Chronicle’ in 1967 – ten years before ‘revival Molly’ started.

What do we learn of Molly from this innocent source? Let’s try some headings:

  • Geography. The folk collectors concentrated near Cambridge. This source is closer to Peterborough – but it is clearly linked to the reclaimed land of the Cambridgeshire Fens and its neighbourhood. The last collected occasion is 1934, at Little Downham, near Ely.
  • Place in the calendar. Sybil’s mother talks elsewhere of ‘Plough Witching>’ (known elsewhere as ‘mumping’) in connection with Plough Monday; this was a custom close in origin and philosophy to the modern Hallowe’en ‘trick or treat’; involving typically young people dressing as hideous caricatures of old women, going round from door to door soliciting money or other reward. But Molly dancing is also clearly part of the mid-winter for Kate Edwards. Whether the Twelve Days of Christmas, or the time of the Lord of Misrule, or New Year be the focus, Molly attaches to the darkest, most dreary part of the year. Note, too, the link with ‘The Straw Bear’: Sybil refers to the Ramsey Straw Bear (which the ‘Fenland Chronicle’ describes); modern Molly is best seen at the only (so far) revived Straw Bear in Whittlesey.
  • Purpose. Unquestionably a cadging custom! The aim of the dancers is to extract money, or a (hot?) drink. The traditional time, and the expectation of generosity at this time, reinforces the legitimacy. At Balsham, the Plough Witches saw it as necessary to keep up the day.
  • Collectable details: almost none exist here or elsewhere!! Sybil talks of instruments such as you might commonly find at such a place and such a time, (the hammer dulcimer is an East Anglian instrument; Sybil’s own father played the Anglo concertina) and of the dancers being ‘all dressed up’. Nothing more.
That’s not a bad starting place for considering the traditional basis for Molly. Molly was the ‘ritual’ dance of Cambridgeshire, ‘ritual’ here implying that it was performed as a public display at particular occasions or times of the year.

What we can say with any certainty is not rooted in the distant past. We can say nothing about the period before 1820: we are not even sure that there was Molly dancing (though there certainly was a variety of Morris in some sense). The Cambridgeshire Fens are a wild enough place now: before 1820, it is not surprising that no academic or media recording happened.

Let’s start with Mr Sharp. The manuscript notebooks of Cecil Sharp in Clare College Library, Cambridge, contain a reference, under the date 8 September 1911, to Plough Monday dancing at Littleport.

Jonathon Clingo, aged 85, at Littleport, told me that 6 men called Morris dancers used to go round the village on Plough Monday and the neighbouring villages. One man dressed in women’s clothes, led by a man with a long feather sticking straight out of his cap. Also a fiddler and a sweeper with a broom. The 6 men had white shirts with ribbons and scarves all over them and high box hats. In the evening they had a ball to which the others came, and all danced, very often to a fight to a finish between men representing two different villages. The Morris dancers didn’t act a play but simply jigged about. No bells, no sticks, no handkerchiefs. ... No plough. ...

Robert Grinditon (aged 80) at Ely workhouse gave me a few details about Plough Monday which was evidently a regular thing in these parts 20 or 30 years ago. The sweeper they called Humpty. He had a hump on his back, a besom in his hand, his face blackened and a long tail of braided straw hanging down his back. There was also a fiddler and a man with a tambourine. The dancers had ribbons down their sleeves and all down their trousers. ...

At Little Downham they had 3 dancers and a man-woman who danced and caused much mirth. The man used to ‘kiss her and one thing and another’. The sweeper swept children off the dancing ground, and the snow away when there was any.

Let’s go further back: Josiah Chater’s diary (now in Cambridge Folk Museum – he being a Cambridge resident).

12 Jan 1845. The first thing this morning was the morris dancers it being Plough Monday. They did kick up such a row as I never heard in all my life: all day long: men, women and boys.

Another contemporary observer: S. P. Widnall, in his privately printed history of Grantchester, recorded in 1875:

Boys go round the village in a party of 30 or 40, and at each door shout in chorus: ‘Pray bestow a ha’penny on the poor plough boy – woa-ho-up’, repeated many times with a loud cracking of whips.

Some of the young men go ‘Ploughmondaying‘, but they usually go into Cambridge for the day and make the round of the village in the evening. They deck themselves in ribbons and one of their number is dressed as a woman. A fiddler accompanies them and at intervals they stop in the street and dance, one or two going round to beg of passers-by. Only men and boys take part.

The local press contains numerous (usually disapproving) references to the customs around Plough Monday:

The plough-boys of this town on Monday last persisted in the ancient custom of drawing an old plough through the streets and dressing themselves in the most ludicrous fashion, disfiguring their features by blacking the nose and mouth, with artificial humps on their backs, and rattling the indispensable box to all they came in contact with – frightening the children, drawing smiles from the lovers of fun and a few coppers from the generous... (Cambridge Independent Press, 18 January1862)

A quantity of wild bucolic dances was executed in the street to the enchanting accompaniment of a hurdy-gurdy and a badly tuned fiddle, whilst passers-by were attacked mercilessly for coppers...Plough Monday is a nuisance and needs put it down... (Cambridge Chronicle and University Journal, 14 January 1865)

Let’s start to analyse some of this.


Disguise, cross-dressing and a weirdness of fancy dress are typical. Like Plough Witches, Molly dancers often aimed at a grotesque look.

Fenland storyteller W. H. Barrett describes the effect of Molly in Brandon Creek:

The young men dressed up in fancy costume, some as males with belts and garters of straws, some as women with girdles of horse-chestnuts and garters strung with acorns, then to the accompaniment of ‘music’ made by beating sticks on pails of old tin baths, a plough was dragged round and money demanded. Should any housewife refuse to give a copper or two, then the ‘females’ of the party took off the long-legged drawers they wore and tied them round the ungenerous woman’s neck while everyone chanted.

Describing the Whittlesey Straw Bear party, the Peterborough and Huntingdonshire Standard of 16 January 1886 says they were dressed in all manner of fashions, some being painted to resemble Red Indians.

The Cambridge Chronicle of 18 January 1851 describes ...Parties of five, dressed and beribboned in a most grotesque fashion to represent various beings, human or otherwise...

At Little Downham in 1932, Fred Shelton, leader of the dancers, wore a pink coat and trousers and a pink top hat with flowers round it; another dancer wore an old black tailcoat with a kind of long white pigtail hanging down the back of it; others wore goggles.

In Milton, near Cambridge, Mrs Goodin told Russell Wortley that the Molly dancers danced on Boxing Day and wore a variety of animal heads – not masks but full heads which were kept from year to year – a pig’s head, a donkey’s and a cow’s.

Common features in most of the accounts include disguise (sometimes faces blacked, sometimes more exotic – goggles, animal heads, bonnets); cross-dressing; ‘carnival’ decoration – ribbons, sashes, rosettes or ‘fancy dress’. There is little evidence of a common uniform – the effect is more home-made and ad-hoc with an enthusiasm for shocking everyday expectations. Sybil Marshall’s brother Gerald met masked ploughboys in Ramsey on Plough Monday, 1934 and was so startled and upset by their appearance that he fell off his bicycle, was nearly struck by a car and fled to the nearest house, where the guard dog escaped and attacked the plough boys.

A nineteenth century Cambridge paper expresses it well:

...truculent rustics dressed in an outlandish and savage guise, who paraded in companies of six or eight and after executing a wild and somewhat terrific kind of dance, surrounded passengers and made violent incursions into shops demanding money....

The Dances

Sharp (and others) ignored Molly in his published work largely because the dances he observed were in essence the social dances of the area and time, used for ‘ritual’ purposes. Richard Humphries felt that dance collectors inspired by the success of Cecil Sharp and his contemporaries tended to judge any dance collecting against the general pattern set by the familiar Cotswold form of the Morris. Those who saw Molly dancing, or were given second-hand accounts by former dancers, assumed that the dance was a degenerate form of the Morris. It lacked the spectacular capers and other outstanding features of Cotswold Morris and as a result was considered relatively unworthy of study, let alone collecting. (R. Humphries “’...for a little bit of sport’: Molly dancing and Plough Monday in East Anglia” Linton: R. & K. Humphries (1986) p1.)

In analysing what actually happened, a nice starting point is a comment from a nineteenth century chronicler of ‘British Popular Customs’, Thistleton Dyer: he dances about as gracefully as the hippopotamus.

William Palmer saw (and photographed) the last ‘traditional’ performances of Molly dancing, in Little Downham in 1932 and 1933: there was very little in the dancing, and at each place they merely jigged about in couples turning slowly round. The steps consisted of right hop, left hop, springing to the right and left alternately. The movement resembled a country dance setting except that the men held each other and moved in the same direction.

Cecil Sharp comments (in his unpublished notes): the ordinary, everyday dance of the country-folk, performed not merely on festal days, but whenever opportunity offered and the spirit of merrymaking was abroad. The step and figures are simple and easily learned, so that anyone of ordinary intelligence and of average physique can without difficulty qualify as a competent performer (Sharp 1934, 12).

Cyril Papworth, whose father danced, recorded 7 ‘feast dances’ – ordinary social dances – used by the Comberton and Girton Molly dancers, plus one which was not a social dance – ‘Special Molly’. All the Comberton and Girton dances are in longways sets, with a sequence of repeated figures after a progression. Each includes an upper arm hold, two-handed swing, and is danced to a well-known tune – ‘Keel Row’, ‘Brighton Camp’, ‘Smash the Windows’ and so on. Polkas, hornpipes and jigs are used.

Interestingly, some later references are to various more modern styles of dance – waltzes or even tangos. The dances are always secondary to the occasion. There is no evidence of a mythical long-lost specialised Molly repertoire – what made everyday dances into Molly was the occasion, the appearance and the purpose.

The Comberton and Girton dances, as taught by Cyril Papworth, are included in this publication. They are all we have as a link to what Molly was. All Molly teams, in my view, need to start from the collected tradition, including the collected dances, and refer back to it and them constantly as they develop their own approach.


Here are some initial guidelines, based upon what we have read so far:

  • Molly was practical – it was about entertainment in an area and at a time which saw little to divert it. Of course, as an entertainment, it expects its reward: Wortley and Papworth report that the cadgers, who had one or two rosettes pinned to their jackets, customarily carried a large spoon or ladle for collecting the money, which was then transferred to a box.
  • Molly is about a challenge to the‘normal’ rules. Blackened faces are an excellent way for dancers to disguise themselves from their neighbours and acquaintances as they became performers and danced for money. More interestingly, men dancing in women’s clothes have a long history amongst rioters, outlaws and rebels (likewise, the Victorian women who ‘dressed liked men’ – in trousers – scandalised their age). In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, London had its “Molly houses” where homosexual men met to drink, dance (!), flirt, dress as women and have sex. Margaret Clap’s Molly house in Field Lane, Holborn was raided in 1726 and more than 40 men were arrested: Clap herself was fined, imprisoned and sentenced to stand in a pillory in Smithfield Market.
  • Molly dancers aren’t quite sane. Molly was a midwinter dance – Boxing Day, New Year, and Plough Monday – at a time when no one sensible danced outside, true even today.
  • Molly is honest: never having been tainted by the ‘pagan fertility rite’ nonsense, having none of the paraphernalia (bells, hankies), which marks out Morris dancers. Consequently, Molly dancers largely escape the ridicule thrown at (in particular) Morris dancers. [One of my own treasured memories is of walking in kit through Ramsey (we were dancing for the switching on of the Christmas lights). A small child saw us passing and ran to its mother, crying “Look, Mummy, it’s ... um ... it’s ... um ...”].
  • Molly was no more complicated than it needed to be. What we know of the dances themselves suggests an admirable (and typically Fenland) economy of repertoire: perhaps half a dozen drawn from the all year round, high days and holidays social dance repertoire. (Cyril Papworth’s publication of the Comberton dances simply talks of the ‘Feast Dances of Cambridgeshire’.) The occasion itself was the priority, not the complexity of the dances (or the energy or skill of the dancers, as far as we can tell). A visit from a sociable group, some colour and some theatricality, lively music – these were more than enough to make a midwinter Molly tour to an isolated Fenland village a success. The dances weren’t showy, or even special (the audience danced many of the same themselves at social events) because they didn’t need to be.
To summarise then: Molly traditionally was a midwinter dance for the entertainment of its audience and the reward of its performers, which relied upon occasion, seasonal generosity and annual expectation, noise and strangeness of appearance for its effect. The dance repertoire was that which was readily to hand.

Tony Forster ~ 2002

Pig Dyke Molly